Our latest Freakonomics podcast, “The Season of Death,” explored the relative danger of some favorite summertime activities — all of which claim many more lives than the much-feared shark attack. Foreign Policy has compiled a list of 10 things that kill more people than sharks. Our favorites: trampolines, roller coasters, and vending machines. Also on the list: aggressive TVs or furniture:
Crushed by television or furniture:26.64 deaths per year. As I’ve noted, this is a bigger killer of Americans than terrorism, which led to this Colbert Report Threat Down warning against the perils of “terrorist furniture.”
In SuperFreakonomics, we wrote about a media sensation in 2001 that came to be known as “Summer of the Shark.” A few particularly gruesome shark attacks in American waters had newspapers, magazines, and TV stations scrambling to out-shout each other about the danger. As we wrote:
A reasonable person might never go near the ocean again. But how many shark attacks do you think actually happened that year?
Take a guess — and then cut your guess in half, and now cut it in half a few more times.
During the entire year of 2001, around the world there were just 68 shark attacks, of which 4 were fatal. Not only are these numbers far lower than the media hysteria implied; they were also no higher than in earlier years or in the years to follow. Between 1995 and 2005, there were on average 60.3 worldwide shark attacks each year, with a high of 79 and a low of 46. There were on average 5.9 fatalities per year, with a high of 11 and a low of 3. In other words, the headlines during the summer of 2001 might just as easily have read “Shark Attacks About Average This Year.” But that probably wouldn’t have sold many magazines.
A reader named Chuck Armitage writes in with a question about which I know nothing but which I’d like to know much more.
So what do you say, readers? What do you know, and think, and what can you tell us?
Here is my question… Why is shark fin soup still popular?
Ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture and yet that is what shark fin soup represents. The more expensive it gets, the more it proves that your host honors you by serving the soup. And the more the West vilifies the barbarian finning practices of the shark fisherman, the more the Chinese seem to dig in their heels and say look at your own barbaric practices before you racially attack us. There is a huge disconnect between what are normally considered admirable traits of civilized Chinese society and what is going on with this tradition.
Are the activities of the ecology activists helping or hurting their cause? How do you change the sentiments of a seemingly positive tradition when the act is causing such an ecological disaster? Is seal clubbing or factory farming as bad as shark-finning?
It is a burning issue right now and many species of sharks will go extinct if it is not solved. No matter what we do in North America, the real issue is in Asia. Even if we ban the import of shark fin here, the growing wealth in China will end the shark as we know it in our oceans.
How can this be positioned in a way that will be championed by the Chinese populace?
Did you know that vending machines, not a major danger in most of our minds, are twice as likely to kill you as a shark? I heard this statistic at the new shark-and-ray touch tank of the New England Aquarium, which I try to visit weekly with my daughters. You stand at a large, shallow tank with plexiglass walls and can lay your hand in the water, gently feeling the sharks and sting rays swimming by.
The aquarium probably wants to convince visitors that sharks are not the fierce predators of Jaws fame, and thereby help protect sharks from hunting and extinction. Although I could admire this motive, the comparison always surprised me. My number sense complained that sharks simply must be more dangerous than vending machines.
However, upon looking up the risks, I found that the comparison was correct. The yearly risk (in the United States) of dying from a shark attack is roughly 1 in 250 million. In contrast, the yearly risk of dying from a vending machine accident is roughly 1 in 112 million. The vending machine is indeed roughly twice as lethal as the shark!
Why then was I still troubled by the comparison? Maybe my number sense needed a tune up, and I should just accept the statistical facts of life. I then started thinking about it using the method of easy cases.
It doesn’t seem fair that one person can be so good at so many things. Nathan Myhrvold is one such person. He is probably still best known as the former chief technology officer of Microsoft. These days, he runs an invention company and spends his free time digging up dinosaur bones, experimenting with old and new cooking methods, and taking . . .
In today’s Times, Andy Revkin reports on a new study by the Lenfest Ocean Program that will surely inspire a rush to the barricades for certain environmentalists: Some shark populations in the Mediterranean Sea have completely collapsed, according to a new study, with numbers of five species declining by more than 96 percent over the past two centuries. “This loss . . .